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Chopper's Curse Still Hangs Over Visalia 38 Years Later

"Super Joe's" Brazilian Pet Alligator Responsible for Title Drought
September 8, 2016

VISALIA- It's been 38 years since the Rawhide last won the California League championship.

And the spirit of a key reptilian figure is to blame.

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Over the past three-and-a-half plus decades, Visalia's professional baseball club has suffered a litany of misfortunes.

They've reached the Cal League Finals nine times. They've lost all nine.

They reached four consecutive finals from 1980-83. In 1983, they were led by future Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. They still lost.

In 1990, they had the best record in the league, and were upset in the first round.

The year 2000 saw the Rawhide qualify as a wildcard team and defeat Bakersfield and Modesto in deciding games before succumbing to Lancaster 3 games to 0 in the championship series for yet another disappointing end.

In 2003, they had the best record in the league, and were upset in the semi-final series by Stockton.

In 2006, they were four outs away from a championship, leading Inland Empire 2 games to 1 in the championship series and 2-1 with two outs in the 8th inning of game four. They lost.

In 2010, they had a four-game lead over Modesto for the final playoff spot with six games to play. They blew two 6-0 leads over the final week, lost five of their last six, watched Modesto win their last six games, and failed to make the postseason.

From the 2008 through 2012 California League seasons, the Rawhide are the only franchise that failed to make the playoffs once…in a league where six of ten teams qualify for them each year. If you're scoring at home, the odds of missing the playoffs five straight times in such a system are literally 100 to 1.

The streak of heading home early was snapped in 2013 as the Rawhide hung on through some freak injuries to their starting catcher (who was hit by a stray bat during batting practice) and slugging third baseman (who injured his hand on a routine swing) to notch a wild card spot in the California League postseason. Visalia was able to defeat Modesto in the opening round but ultimately fell 3 games to 2 to the San Jose Giants, who would come back to haunt them a few seasons later.

Back-to-back playoff appearances ensued in 2014 as Visalia inked another wild card appearance and, for the second season in a row, swept their way into the North Division Championship round. The Bakersfield Blaze, who finished with the second best record in the league that season, were no match for the up and coming Rawhide, who extinguished the Blaze 3 games to 1 to head to the California League Championship Series for the ninth time since they last hung the banner in 1978. A back-and-forth series saw Visalia win games one and four while the Lancaster Jethawks picked up victories in games two and three. An all-or-nothing game five ensued and the curse reared its ugly head once more, giving Lancaster a 10-2 game and series victory.

A third straight playoff appearance in 2015 had everybody thinking this was the year. The Rawhide not only won their first 1st half North Division title since 1990 but they swept both halves for the first time since 1990 as well and finished up with the California League's best record at 84-56 and once again earned a first round bye. After winning two straight one-run games in San Jose to begin the North Division Championship Series, the Rawhide needed but one victory to head back to the championship series. San Jose was able to win back-to-back one-run contests at Rawhide Ballpark to force an improbable deciding game five. After falling behind 5-2, the Rawhide battled back to tie the game 5-5 in the 8th inning. Soon the page would turn to extra frames and in the top of the 11th Chopper reappeared on a home run ball that appeared to go foul but was ruled fair giving the Giants a 6-5 series win. 

Clearly, luck has not been with Visalia. But is there more to it than that?

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The 1978 Visalia team was one of the best in minor league history; they dominated the league, winning 100 games and losing only 44. They scored over 1,000 runs, batted over .300 as a team, had two 18-game-winners on their pitching staff, and defeated Lodi in the Finals for the championship.

They had multiple stars, but one man was the heartbeat of the team: Joe Charboneau. "Super Joe," as fans called him, batted .350 for Visalia, earning admiration and awe for his daring exploits on and off the field. Two years later, he would be named the American League Rookie of the Year and become a cult figure in Cleveland.

Charboneau was the life of every party in the summer of '78, and was famously willing to do or try nearly anything, including drinking beer through his nose and pulling his own tooth.

Wait…did we mention that he owned a pet alligator that year?

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Why yes, in fact, he did.

His name was Chopper. He was Brazilian. And he lived in Joe's bathtub.

Chopper, by all accounts, was a good-natured, even-tempered young reptile. Except when he tried to bite his owner or eat a teammate's kitten.

"He was a great pet," Charboneau later said. "I was really attached to him. I was going to train him to wrestle me. He would have grown to be about six feet long, so I would have had the height advantage."

In short, Chopper was living the dream. But the dream (and Chopper) didn't live long.

After the team was crowned California League Champions, Charboneau went home to Illinois. Chopper, due to increasing size, logistics, and spousal reluctance, did not go with him. Heartbroken, Super Joe was forced to leave his beloved animal with a teammate.

Not long after, Chopper decided he'd had enough of being restricted to an aquarium. He made a heroic leap out of the water, and towards the sweet ground of freedom.

He missed.

Instead of making his escape, the raging gator hit his head on the tank, and passed from this life. Visalia, it turned out, could not contain him.

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Is it a coincidence that things haven't been the same for Tulare County's only professional sports team since Chopper's tragic and untimely death? Is it possible that his angry spirit still haunts Rawhide Ballpark, causing misfortune to repeatedly befall the club?

In 2013 after consulting local physics, the Rawhide attempted to make Chopper's disturbed and restless spirit feel more welcomed; to invite him to become a part of the team. By doing so, his angry aura may shift to a more positive light. But even after introducing a "friend" for Chopper, who threw out the first pitch for a game no less, as well as the "Rally-Gator" clap the championship drought continues.

This season the Rawhide has decided to embrace the Gator in a new way. The 2016 Visalia Rawhide will be "covered" in gator skin throughout their playoff run, formally becoming one with Chopper through their gator skin themed playoff jerseys. 

Join the Rawhide as they set out to "Reverse the Curse" that has plagued the baseball team for 38 years, and help free Chopper's spirit!

 

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